Several months ago, UNC’s campus hosted the Martha Graham Dance Company in its 89th anniversary year, presenting Graham’s iconic Lamentation from 1930, as well as two variations invited in 2007 of the master choreographer’s work as a 9/11 tribute. Since that awe-inspiring performance – see the review here – UNC students have been hard at work creating their own variations of Lamentation, a response to grief that dehumanizes while expressing one of the quintessential human experiences: loss.

This weekend marks the unveiling of these student-developed tributes, by students across disciplines including women’s studies, political science, psychology, and chemistry. The performance is not only special in its being shaped by a unique collaboration of students, professors, and dance masters; it is also the first student production to be a feature of the Process Series, UNC’s own professional company devoted to the development of contemporary performance art.

In the spirit of “workshopping” (the common theater term for testing out a new work with audience feedback before finalizing the script, staging, etc. before a tour), the dancers, curator Heather Tatreau, and Process Series Artistic Director Joseph Megel hosted a reverse Q&A session after the performance, asking the audience how they responded to and interpreted some of the works, from everything in general to choreography and casting to music and lighting choices, which prompted some very interesting discussion among the audience members.

The six responses to Graham’s Lamentation all addressed the dancers’ and choreographers’ experiences with grief. Jade Poteat’s With[in]out used various shaped picture frames to portray an attempt to constrain oneself to societal norms, either masking or ignoring grief to fit others’ expectations. She skillfully utilized balance and imbalance to put together a lyrical yet sometimes off-kilter dance that was both eerie and beautiful.

Carter Crew and Allie Mobley collaborated in Shadow, a dance that was illuminated with a single spotlight from the front, which created both literal and figurative shadows; the dancers often mirrored each other, but sometimes acted in unison with or opposition to each other.

The most collaborative work was a piece originally designed by Allison Newton, a student who never fully developed her choreography but who contributed her experience and fond memories of a particular person she lost. Miranda Barrigas and James Scalise picked up where Newton left off, using the juxtaposition of nostalgic music versus complete silence to depict someone struggling with the embodiment of her loss. The partners sometimes supported each other with complex weight-sharing motion, but at other times seemed to be in combat with each other, reminiscent of domestic violence, until the woman “closed her eyes and went to glory,” as the lyrics in the final section of music narrates. Perhaps she is defeated by her grief, but perhaps she surrenders to it; the dancers’ choices in focus and facial emotional expression leave the narratives up to the audience.

Bianca Gartner, Melissa Holmes, and Morgan Yapundich collaborated in Time, a duo of beautiful, lyrical motions that a third dancer keeps trying to join in with, to the chagrin of the duo itself. The first two dancers either ignore or antagonize the third dancer, who continues to imbue a hopeful expression and continues to try to ingratiate herself until the other two disappear and the third finally evolves into her own dance, which is a complete departure from the style of dance previously established. This piece I found to be brilliantly performed, both in the complexity of the dancing and the facial representation of the implied emotions.

Tsunami came next, a piece performed by three dancers accompanied by spoken word and the sound of water being poured across several different vessels. Allie Behnke, Bronwyn Bishop, Nicole Frederick, Jazzmin Lee, and Lydia Odom collaborated in a piece that was as suspenseful as it was anticlimactic – perhaps even suspenseful because the title suggests a terrifying climax which never happens.

Finally, Sarah Richardson performed Processing the Prosencephalon, a piece accompanied first by the arrhythmic whirring of machines reminiscent of a hospital, then by a lyric and lush piano accompaniment. Richardson appears to be putting on a brave face while struggling through her grief, but occasionally breaking down.

The dancers presented expertly crafted works that were accessible and could speak to the common human experience of grief. Megel addressed the fact that UNC does not have a dance program, but this concert was a testament to how hard these students could work in that field if given a regular opportunity. Many of the audience members found their own experiences in each work, and it was incredibly interesting to see and hear all the different interpretations of each piece. There was no one correct interpretation, as Megel pointed out, and that is possibly the most powerful aspect of The Lamentation Variation Project.

This program will be repeated on Saturday, September 26, in the same venue. See the sidebar for details.